Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra comparison review

Which is the better Mac OS: Mac OS X El Capitan, or macOS Sierra? Should I update my Mac to the latest OS?

At WWDC 2016, Apple unveiled its newest desktop/laptop OS: macOS Sierra. (Apple rebranded its Mac OS X software as macOS, to fit in with the general typographical style of iOS, tvOS and watchOS.) macOS Sierra was subsequently launched to the general Mac-owning public on 20 September. Sierra adds a raft of new features to the Mac, including the Siri voice-control tech from the iPhone & iPad, as well as a wide range of system and interface tweaks.

It's a free upgrade from El Capitan, the previous Apple desktop OS, so there's no reason not to jump in and grab Sierra at the first opportunity, right? Not so fast. You need to check if your Mac is compatible with the newer OS, for one thing, and because it's not easy to go back to an older Mac OS after making the upgrade, it's worth considering how the new features and changes to the interface will affect your day-to-day user experience. That's what our Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra comparison article is here for: we'll compare the two products' features, interface and design to help you decide which is a better bet for you.

We think you'll want to jump in and grab Sierra - assuming your Mac is up to the job - but you should always put in some research before making an upgrade like this. Let's look at El Cap and Sierra in a little more detail.

Read next: Mac OS X El Capitan review | macOS Sierra review

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Design & interface

Design-wise, El Cap and Sierra are virtually identical. The 'flattened' visuals brought in for Yosemite and retained in El Cap last year are still present in Sierra. But there are a couple of differences in the user interface: you can use tabs in a wide range of first- and third-party apps (including Maps, Mail, TextEdit, all three iWork apps and apparently any third-party app that supports multiple windows - Apple pledges that no additional developer work will be needed to achieve this), rather than just your web browser. A small but logical and convenient step.

There's also a new picture-in-picture viewing mode, similar to the same-named mode in iOS 9 on the iPad. Picture-in-picture "lets you float video from Safari or iTunes in a window over your desktop as you work", in Apple's words, and you can pin this video mini-window to one corner of your screen, where it will stay even if you switch spaces.

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Features

The differences between Mac OS X El Capitan and macOS Sierra are largely confined to the features roster - it's what they can do, far more than what they look like. There are lots of new features to consider - take a look at our roundup of Sierra new features for a more comprehensive look - but in this section we'll focus on what we think are the highlights.

Siri on Mac

This is the big one. Macs can now be controlled verbally using the Siri voice-recognition engine from the iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch and Apple TV. It was only a matter of time, really - and it's only fair to point out that Windows already has Cortana (and has done since Windows 8.1) - but it's still nice to see.

This is particularly useful for searching through documents; you can use natural language to specify various search parameters, and the results sit afterwards in the Notifications pane from where they can be dragged and dropped into applicable apps.

Read more: Complete guide to Siri on Mac

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Siri

Apple Pay on Mac

Apple Pay has jumped from the iOS ecosystem to Mac (via tvOS and watchOS), but obviously the Mac (which hasn't got a fingerprint scanner) can't handle the verification process by itself. You'll need to use your iPhone or iPad to verify your identity, after doing the browsing and shopping on your iMac.

Apple Pay icons will now appear on the buy pages of certain merchants - all you need do is verify your purchases with Touch ID on your iPhone, or using your Apple Watch. Apple Pay on Mac was made available in the UK from Sierra's launch, as well as in the US, Canada, Australia, China and Singapore.

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra

Auto unlock (with Apple Watch)

Some Apple fans were hoping that macOS Sierra would bring for the ability to unlock a Mac using the Touch ID fingerprint scanner on an iPhone. Instead, Apple announced something that's arguably a lot more convenient, albeit targeted at a smaller market: the ability to proximity-unlock your Mac with your Apple Watch (if the watch has been unlocked - and it may have been auto-unlocked by its companion iPhone in turn, somewhat ironically).

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Auto unlock with Apple Watch

Cross-device syncing

Universal Clipboard, a new addition to the Continuity suite of features covering interaction between Mac and iOS devices, is a great way to copy and paste data between devices. Whatever you copy on one of your devices - Mac, say - will be sent wirelessly to the clipboard on your other devices.

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Universal Clipboard

macOS Sierra also gives you the ability to share your desktop (and/or the Documents folder) with other devices. Files saved in either of these locations will be accessible via an iPad or iPhone's iCloud Drive, in the equivalent location on another Mac, or via the iCloud for Windows app on a PC.

Optimised storage

Optimised Storage is a new way of helping your storage space go a bit further. It removes certain duplicate files for you, without needing to be told (caches, logs and so on - nothing you'll miss) and automatically stores items you rarely use in iCloud.

Messages

Messages in macOS Sierra (as in iOS 10) has been given a full-on youth makeover, with more emphasis than ever before on emoji and similar effects that are likely to divide opinion (most of them seem targeted at a young audience). There's a 'tapback' feature, for instance, which enables you to respond instantly to a message by tapping one of six icons - thumbs up or down, a heart, 'Ha ha', a question mark, or an exclamation mark. Not really our thing, but nice to have the option.

More practically, links pasted into messages will be previewed in the message thread. You can see the headline of the article, main artwork and so on.

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Messages

Photos

Here's another feature that's received twin makeovers in iOS and macOS.

Photos has a new Memories feature, which (in theory) accurately recognises people, places and events, and uses this data to automatically create themed, easily customisable albums for you.

Read more: Tips for Photos on Mac

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Photos

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Price, launch date and availability

Both El Cap and Sierra are (or in El Cap's case were) free updates. Apple always delivers OS updates for free now; the last time it charged for a new OS was 10.8 Mountain Lion, back in 2012.

If your Mac is compatible (see next section) and you've got the Mac App Store - i.e., if you're currently running Mac OS X Snow Leopard or later - then you can upgrade directly to macOS Siera for free right now. If you haven't got Snow Leopard, you buy this from Apple's online store and then make further updates via the Mac App Store, although in this case you should be particularly careful to establish that your Mac is able to run the newer OSes.

For more detail, read our tutorial: How to install macOS Sierra right now.

El Capitan is rather more difficult to download. It's no longer available on the Mac App Store: Apple always pulls the old OS when it adds the new one. if you're keen to go back to El Capitan, read How to delete macOS Sierra and reinstall El Capitan.

Download link: macOS Sierra on the Mac App Store

Mac OS X El Capitan vs macOS Sierra: Which Macs can run each OS?

Sierra is more demanding to run that El Cap. If your Mac sits in the band of machines that can run the latter but not the former, your decision may be made for you.

Here are the machines that can run Mac OS X El Capitan:

  • MacBook (13-inch Aluminum, Late 2008), (13-inch, Early 2009 or later)
  • MacBook Air (Late 2008 or later)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, Mid-2009 or later), (15-inch, Mid/Late 2007 or later), (17-inch, Late 2007 or later)
  • Mac Mini (Early 2009 or later)
  • Mac Pro (Early 2008 or later)
  • iMac (Mid-2007 or later)

And here are the machines that can run macOS Sierra:

  • MacBook (Late 2009 or later)
  • MacBook Air (2010 or later)
  • MacBook Pro (2010 or later)
  • Mac mini (2010 or later)
  • Mac Pro (2010 or later)
  • iMac (Late 2009 or later)

For more information about macOS Sierra's system requirements, see: Will my Mac run macOS Sierra?

OUR VERDICT

It's not the quantum leap forward we've seen in iOS 10, but Sierra is still a major upgrade with a couple of attractive headline features (Siri and auto-unlock) and a wide range of smaller useful features (particularly Universal Clipboard and tabs in non-browser apps). It's more demanding than El Capitan so check your Mac is up to the task, but we reckon this is a solid and useful update.

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